Social media has revolutionised journalism for good and bad, with many viewing the dominance of social media giants Google and Facebook as a key factor in the decline of the local newspaper industry.
Now a group of distinguished journalists and academics have come together to take a closer look at how the social media phenomenon has impacted on journalism, politics and wider society.
In the first of three chapters which we are serialising on HoldtheFrontPage this week, industry veteran Alan Geere returns to one of his former newsrooms to find that while much has changed, some things remain the same.
It’s 10.30 on an ordinary June Thursday morning and, in a scenario repeated in newsrooms throughout the country, morning conference is about to start.
I am back on home territory, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where 25 years ago I helped The Journal convert from a traditional broadsheet to a bright, modern tabloid heralding similar moves throughout the country.
But I am not at Thomson House, the brutally unattractive yet strangely beguiling office building which once housed four floors of newspaper workers, a giant clattering press and even its own pub just yards from the Bigg Market, once, like the newspaper office, the beating heart of this raucous city.
I am in the altogether more genteel surroundings of the Eldon Square shopping centre, just a few hundred yards but a million miles from Thomson House. “Up escalator, take a right, along past Levi’s and then left between Costa and Ann Summers,” the uniformed helper tells me when I ask for ‘Eldon Court, second floor’.
I arrive at an unprepossessing locked door telling me the hours the police are in attendance. I think I’m at the wrong place until I spy a small notice asking me to call a Newcastle phone number if I am visiting the Chronicle & Journal.
Just grateful that I have a mobile on me – what happens to people who don’t? – the door opens with someone coming out and I dart in. Press 2 on the lift, but nothing happens; it’s out of order. Up the stairs, along a corridor, buzzed through a door and I’m in…to be greeted by a man with a clipboard who gives me a thorough Health and Safety workout.
Then, suddenly I’m in the newsroom. A bright, orderly space full of bright, orderly people doing what is required for a modern media business. Welcome to The World of Newspapers, 2018-style.
Chartbeat: Incessant and relentless
I am welcomed by Helen Dalby, ‘Senior Editor and Head of Digital North East’ aka the person in charge. There is no-one called just ‘editor’ any more since editor-in-chief Darren Thwaites hopped over the Pennines to edit Reach’s (née Trinity Mirror) flagship daily, the Manchester Evening News. The current editor-in-chief is now based in Hull, 130 miles away.
As well as still home to the three Newcastle-based newspapers – Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun – the office marches to the beat of ChronicleLive, one of the biggest regional digital media operations in the country providing news, views, video and audio to an audience of millions every month.
Strangely for such a state-of-the-art operation the conference guest list is largely unchanged from time immemorial with representatives from news, production, business, sport and entertainment all sharing the table to sing for their supper.
But behind them the league table of story hits, as compiled by Chartbeat, flickers and burps its way through real-time consumption showing how many people are engaged with a particular story and how long they spend looking at it. It is incessant and relentless and impossible not keep glancing at it.
There is a news list, a complex matrix of who’s doing what and when, which continually evolves during the day and gives an at-a-glance view of what is available for digital and what is coming up for the printed papers.
Flying the flag for sport is Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas. There is no longer simply a sports editor, a reflection that the Toon (plus Sunderland AFC to a certain extent) are the biggest games in town. By the close of conference, the top three stories in the all-seeing chart behind him are all Newcastle United – and this on a day when nothing has really happened.
Clickbait? Explaining the way
Douglas cuts a relaxed figure for the man who daily chaperones the hopes and fears of thousands of Newcastle United fans through the minefield of comings and goings, financial affairs and personality clashes at St James’s Park.
Premiership football is obviously big business. As well as the zillions in broadcast revenue there’s also the small matter of 50,000 people going through the turnstiles every two weeks at an average of £40 each. You do the math.
No wonder the club has a well-groomed media team, providing only limited access to the movers and shakers, but Douglas and his team still manage to turn out a steady stream of viable stories – all of which head straight to the top of the readership charts.
Douglas has also put his pen where his mouth is to explain to how ChronicleLive covers Newcastle United in the transfer window and beyond. In a published column he acknowledges how NUFC coverage can be a subject of fierce debate during the summer – and responds to clickbait jibes.
“It’s June, it’s Newcastle United and the transfer window is open. It isn’t just the weather that gets heated as the combination of annual uncertainty over the club’s direction, a seemingly never-ending conveyer belt of transfers rumours and a lack of tangible movement make for a spiky few months when it comes to reporting on the Magpies,” writes Douglas.
“People talk about a golden era of football journalism when every reporter knew the players, managers and chairmen and had a hotline to the club. Maybe that was the case, but that’s just not possible in 2018. Clubs have their own media departments and the players have a bit more distance these days.”
Football’s ‘critical friends’
Douglas is quickly on the attack to defend ChronicleLive – whether it be via the app, Twitter, Facebook or website – from accusations that they publish anything that is misleading.
“When people call us out at the Chronicle, it’s usually criticising us for writing ‘clickbait’. So, here’s a confession: yes, we are looking to get as many page views as we can. We need to keep growing our online audience and want to do it by innovating with the way Newcastle is being covered.
“So yes, we write about things that we think people will be interested in and get into the middle of debates that are engaging people on social media and – we reckon – in the living rooms, pubs, classrooms and offices of Newcastle.
“Clickbait implies that it’s misleading but we try not to oversell or over-promise. If it’s a rumour or report, we’ll clearly state that. And yes, in a crowded online space we have to try and sell it in a way that stands out. But if we oversell it, we know people will stop reading. So, we’ve worked hard to try not to do that.”’
Calling themselves ‘critical friends’ of the club Douglas put himself out there with these comments and readers weren’t shy to come back with their own responses.
“My complaints are that there are stories repeated day after day, with very ham fisted tweaking of the headline or [sic] verbage.”
“My advice is to separate out the drivel so people can laugh as they read it, but if you want us to take you seriously you should stop pushing this drivel as genuine news.”
But some were on a more positive note.
“Apart from the innumerable ads which I understand to a point, I think you do a decent job. I always read what you say. Some of it is regurgitated, some speculation and others comment. As you say you are trying to grow and compete in an ever-decreasing market – good luck.”
Competition, rather than co-operation
Back in the day, Thomson House – named after the Canadian media dynasty that acquired so many UK regional titles – was home to three independent newsrooms all with their own reporters, photographers and production teams. The Evening Chronicle printed multiple editions during the day, The Journal printed during the night for morning delivery and the Sunday Sun was its own adrenaline-fuelled version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
The system thrived on competition, rather than co-operation. Sometimes three reporters from the same building were at the same event chasing the same people. With the advent of computers skills were acquired at the dark arts of hacking into a ‘rival’ database to look at their stories.
But for a modern media business this was a bonkers way to run the operation and, in 2009, the newsrooms were combined into a single entity and, in 2012, Thwaites was appointed to run the show. There is still a sizeable number of journalists – 100 in all – involved from hunter gatherer reporters to ‘story editors’, the latest incarnation of the endangered species of sub-editor.
Dalby has made it to the top through a digital route rather than traditional journalism, but that doesn’t stop her getting caught up in the thrill of it all. “The job consumes me,” she admits “and I find it difficult to imagine not being in the thick of news publishing. The buzz in a newsroom when everyone is pulling together on a developing story is quite intoxicating.
“It’s a cliché, but no two days are the same and that’s hugely exciting. I’m proud of the content we publish, and it’s gratifying to have at our disposal analytics which prove that we’re answering the questions local people are asking, and doing so responsibly, ethically and with strong brand values at our core.”
Dalby and regional head of print Matt McKenzie both exude authority and friendliness and take great satisfaction from the people they have brought on and the systems in place to make it happen. Dalby leads most of the monthly skills workshops that staff attend and every reporter has a quarterly one-to-one to look at their own individual progress.
“I get a lot of job satisfaction from seeing the training I’ve delivered helping both experienced and new reporters to reach the biggest possible audiences,” she says.
The set-up, though, is far from traditional. Apart from Dalby, there are two ‘digital publishing editors’, working shifts to cover the bulk of the day and a ‘head of print’ who looks after the paper and ink side of things. There’s still a news desk, but there’s also an ‘advance content editor’.
Live from court
One dramatic development is covering court ‘live’ from the Press bench. Updates come in via mobile phone from the reporter but are still checked by the digital publishing editor for grammar, accuracy, spelling and legal issues before going out via the app and social media. There is no ‘self-publishing’, either by staff or contributors (i.e. readers), a bumpy road much travelled in the early days of digital.
It calls for a different style of reporting. In one notorious murder trial readers were treated to updates like ‘People are coming back into court for the judge to pass sentence’ and ‘McFall [defendant] then looks over to the Press bench and says: “Put that in your report tonight free men”.’
It’s immediate, engaging and dramatic. But not at the expense of full court report and backgrounders which are filed with similar speed and appear both online and in the printed paper.
But what about the print?
Interestingly, and some may even say perversely, for a business that is so clearly digital first they still put a lot of effort and resource into the printed product.
Matt McKenzie is a senior editor and Regional Head of Print for The Chronicle, The Journal and Sunday Sun as well as The Gazette from neighbouring Teesside, which are all produced from one production desk. Working with him is the print team, which comprises print publishing editors and story editors, who can all design pages, via templates or using the shapes in the design libraries.
These editors not only have the pick of all that content created for digital but also the input of the Print Content Unit, a new development which deals with the print-only content like readers’ letters and columnists, most of which only go in print, and some specially commissioned news stories and features. Most of the work from veteran environment editor Tony Henderson, for instance, will appear in print first and usually in The Journal, his spiritual home.
Three writers produce articles exclusively for the papers, which might go online too. “A good example of this would be the recently-introduced Tyneside Revealed series which appears in The Chronicle each Monday,” explains McKenzie. “It’s written for the paper but may go online after discussion with the content desk if they think it’ll work well on the website.”
The print team also includes content curators who will gather user-generated content, which will go in print, but often also finds its way online. But who decides what goes where and what play to give it? Formerly the province of the editor reigning supreme at afternoon conference it is now a job for those print publishing editors.
“In terms of placing stories, the print publishing editors manage the flatplans for each title,” explains McKenzie. “They will attend conference and review the publishing schedule – a constantly-updated googledoc with each department’s content lists – news, sport, advance and business – and they’ll place the stories from there. Occasionally, The Chronicle and The Journal might go with the same front page story, but more often it’s different!”
In an era when the template rules and many regional newspapers are a lack-lustre reflection of former glories the titles produced from Newcastle still exude flair and authority, a testament to investing in design skills and management time – helped along by having one of the busiest news patches in the country.
How far has journalism come?
So what would the perennial naysayers (‘Wasn’t like that in my day…’) and armchair editors make of the modern newsroom?
They would find committed, capable people confidently handling all the channels of delivery with a dexterity that can only be marvelled at.
Much has changed from my harem scarem days at Thomson House. All those up-to-the- minute – no, second – blinking screens telling you what’s hot and what’s not are a far cry from the ‘I know what my readers like’ finger in the wind editor of not that long ago.
But much is the same too. The excitement when a big story breaks, the leadership needed to steer it in the right direction and the boots on ground skills of talking to people and delivering what you find out quickly and succinctly.
It has a been, to use Dalby’s words a ‘thrilling and intoxicating day’ for me too. To see the daily dramas unfold first hand under the all-seeing eye of the metric counter reminds me how far journalism has come.
But I don’t want to leave the Toon without two trips down memory lane. First to the Printers Pie pub built into the ground floor of the old NCJ building where many a newsroom experience has been shared over the years. But, now renamed, it is dark, dingy and locked shut.
So, on to Northumberland Street, Newcastle’s main shopping thoroughfare where I am searching for the street vendor joyfully singing out the charms of that day’s Chronicle.
Unsuccessful, I ask a patrolling police officer. “Oh, I don’t think they do that sort of thing any more.”
Maybe not, but they do a lot more instead….
* Alan Geere is a journalist, academic and international media consultant. Latterly he was head of news journalism at Southampton Solent University and editorial director of Northcliffe Newspapers (South-East). He also edited newspapers in the UK, US, Canada and the Caribbean and led media development programmes in Afghanistan, China and the Far East. As an academic he taught at Worcester, Westminster and City universities and is currently researching a PhD looking into the changing role of editorial leadership.